by Clark Groome
I believe it was Walter Kerr, the distinguished theater critic for the New York Herald Tribune and later the New York Times, who wrote, after seeing a less-than-terrific musical that was beautifully mounted, “You don’t leave the theater whistling the sets.”
Germantown residents Janet and Nick Embree, two of the Philadelphia theater community’s busiest designers, couldn’t agree more.
Both agree that their designs — Janet is a lighting designer, and Nick designs the sets — are secondary elements in the production. The play and the actors should be the principal focus of any theatrical event. “What you’re doing with the lighting,” Janet says, “is creating an atmosphere. That atmosphere is influenced by the tone of the play. If it’s more serious, the atmosphere’s a little darker than a comedy, which may be brighter.”
While the sets are generally more apparent to the average audience member, Nick says, “Sometimes design that calls attention to itself can be recognized for that, like ‘Wow, that was really great.’ The reason people notice it is sometimes it has bells and whistles.”
Think of a typical farce with all those doors that need slamming to get an idea of when a set can almost become a character in the play. “Generally, however,” Nick says, “some of the best design comes in under the radar. The audience may not even be aware that a sound cue, for instance, has been playing that made them feel cold. But they really felt that moment. It touched them emotionally. They felt empathy with the performers. It made the play work.”
While the Embrees work individually, they also often team up on a production. Their current assignment is the Lantern Theater Company’s production of “The Island” by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Nishona, which runs through June 10 at St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets.
Nick and Janet have done a lot of work for Lantern. Janet is an artistic associate, and Nick served as Lantern’s resident set designer for many years. They have also designed for most of the area’s major theaters. Nick has worked at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Arden Theatre, Act II Playhouse, Delaware Theatre Company, 1812 Productions, InterAct Theatre, Freedom Theatre, Bristol Riverside Theatre and the Philadelphia Theatre Company among them. Janet’s work has brought light to productions at 1812, Freedom, Act II, Bristol and the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3.
Now married for 15 years — Nick is 43 and Janet is “over 40” — they met while both were students in the Masters of Fine Arts Theatre program at Temple in the late 1990s.
Janet is a native of southern New Jersey and a graduate of Pfeiffer University in North Carolina (a B.A. in English writing in 1987). Nick was born in Berkeley, California, moved to Mississippi with his college professor father when he was 8, studied abroad and then attended Dartmouth, where he earned a B.A. cum laude in studio art and drama in 1991.
He studied in the graduate design program at New York University’s Tisch Scholl of the Arts before enrolling at Temple. During their time in school, and for Janet in the interim between Pfeiffer and Temple, both worked on shows, sometimes doing grunt work, others actually helping with the design.
After graduating from Temple, they decided to stay in Philadelphia for a year. They had developed local contacts and wanted to get some experience before making the move to New York. One year led to another, and they decided after three years to remain here. “We decided,” Janet says, “that unless something changed drastically, we’d stay in Philadelphia. It’s a great community to be working in.” Nick notes that “the cost of living is much lower than in New York,” which has allowed them to have a house in Germantown, a car and still work with people they describe as great theater artists.
As part of the creative team for a production, the designers meet with the director well in advance of rehearsals. The process of designing a show varies. “The director has the opportunity to talk about what is different about this production,” Janet says. “Depending on the director, that vision can be something very concrete or something very abstract.
Sometimes they want to get in the room with designers and shoot ideas back and forth for them to come up with the concept together. It’s a different process every time.”
Nick notes “The director is the captain of the ship. How much authority he gives to the rest of the [design team] is really up to him.”
While both Embrees began their careers as freelance designers, both are now faculty members at the Ira Brind School of Theater Arts at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.
Nick, an associate professor, has been there since 2004 and is now the head of theater design and technology B.F.A. program. Since 2009 Janet has been the UArts’ production manager. For the school’s 18 annual productions, she schedules all auditions, oversees all the designers and stage managers, and generally makes sure the details of the productions run smoothly.
The Embrees often work seven days a week. Whether teaching about it or actually designing a show, their philosophy is the same. “At the minimum,” Nick says, “you want the design to not get in the way but rather enhance what’s going on onstage without people knowing that’s happening.
“It’s not about us. It’s about the play and the production. The actors are the ones out there having to live that script. A set designer who makes it about his own work — and there are some — does so at the expense of the production. What we want is for people not to think about the parts (of the play), just about the production as a whole.”